Monthly Archives: April 2011

Cemetery antiques

In an undisclosed antique shop

Jeff texted me a photograph this afternoon. In quick succession he wrote, “$2200,” then “Need a grave?”

I was horrified. He’d sent a photo of a beautiful lime green coffin-shaped niche, tall as a person, surrounded by a little white metal fence. “Whose grave is it?” I wrote.

“Dunno.” He was in an antique shop in Sonoma, saw it, and thought of me.

I am pretty sure it’s illegal to sell things from graveyards, as a way to discourage the theft of things from graveyards. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know for certain. If I’d been at the shop with him, I would have quizzed the proprietor about whether these grave decorations had papers, whether they were legitimately purchased from a funeral home or monument dealer or from a cemetery that was going out of business.

Then Jeff sent me another photo. This one was a truly exquisite wrought iron cross, delicate as lace, with metal roses twined around and through its arms. I felt a rush of WANT. It would look so beautiful in my yard…

But of course it also came from a graveyard. And while I know there are any number of disassembled graveyards strewn throughout the world, it’s much more likely than someone saw it, stole it, and sold it to the antique dealers.

Recently I saw a headstone in a shop in San Francisco as well. When I questioned the owner, he got visibly uncomfortable. That headstone came from Europe, he said. He could look up the country, if I was interested, but he didn’t know off the top of his head. Not many people asked that kind of question.

Jeff said that the antiques in Sonoma were probably French, because the shop sold French antiques.

In both cases, the grave markers seem unlikely to have been shipped overseas. My feeling is that there are a lot of Gold Rush-era graveyards spread throughout the foothills of the Sierras. Not all of them belong to living towns any more. All of the dead folk in those graveyards are part of history now. Just as one shouldn’t steal a potsherd from an Native American mound, or a mummy from Egypt, or brooch from a Roman hoard in a field in Britain, one shouldn’t remove monuments from a graveyard. Any graveyard. No matter how abandoned it might look. It would be like ripping pages from a library book.

City of Souls

City of Souls: San Francisco's Necropolis at ColmaCity of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma by Michael Svanevik

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

California’s Colma is unique in the U.S. as a city founded to safeguard the rights of the dead. This little book traces Colma’s history from a fog-bound valley of pig and potato farms to a city of 17 cemeteries with millions of permanent residents.

Colma was founded after burials were banned in San Francisco.  Pioneers buried at Mission Dolores, as well as in the Masonic, Odd Fellows, Catholic and Protestant Cemeteries were uprooted and transferred to new graves in the Colma cemeteries.

Each of the Colma cemeteries receives its own brief chapter, spotlighting important or interesting burials, which are marked on a graveyard map. The variety of memorials is astounding — from the millionaire mausoleums of Cypress Lawn to the handmade monuments crowded into Pets Rest, from the Eastern European flavor of the Serbian graveyard to the East Asian texture of the Japanese or Chinese cemeteries — all documented by black-and-white photos. There’s a lot here to delight the eye and entertain the intellect. This little book is a must for anyone interested in cemeteries.

Although new copies can be hard to find, several are available on Amazon: City of Souls: San Francisco’s Necropolis at Colma

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A Second Final Rest

In August 2005, I finally had the pleasure of seeing Trina Lopez’s documentary A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries. It was worth the wait.

I heard Lopez speak on Halloween (2002?) at the California Historical Society. She showed the most amazing slides of the historical cemeteries of San Francisco, all of which were demolished and thrown into the sea in the 1940s. I’ve known about the travesty since we moved to San Francisco and discovered that the rain gutters in Buena Vista Park were lined with broken headstones — some still legible — but I’d never seen the photo record of the extensive beauty that was lost. Lopez’s research was impeccable. Her passion for the topic burned.

While those elements carried over into the film, it included less of the historic documentation that I would have liked. The focus of the film is interviews Lopez did with seniors who remember playing amidst the crumbling monuments or walking past the tattered clothing unearthed in the excavations. Unfortunately, while those interviews played in voice-overs, we watched the seniors puttering around in the gardens or riding the Muni. I’m sure that was more cost-effective for the filmmaker, but I was disappointed by what might have been.

My favorite part of the film was the interview with Richard Barnes, the photographer who documented the exhumations of the bodies under the Palace of the Legion of Honor’s new gallery space. His comparison of the care taken with the artwork in storage vs. the callous way that the pioneers’ bones were treated served as the heart of the movie.

A Second Final Rest will break your heart.  Check it out if you love cemeteries, San Francisco, or history.

The filmmaker’s website has links of historical interest.

At the moment, there aren’t any upcoming showings scheduled, but you can order a copy of the movie on DVD or buy a download from

Cemetery of the Week #13: Mission Dolores Cemetery

Mission Dolores Cemetery

Cemetery of Misión San Francisco de Asis
3321 Sixteenth Street
San Francisco, CA 94114
Telephone: (415) 621-8203
Established: 1776
Size: less than 1 acre
Oldest marked grave: Don Luis Antonio Arguello, d. 1830
Approximate number of interments: 10,000, including 5,187 First Californians, 150 Mexicans, and various parishioners. Original burials had wooden markers. When they decayed, the graves were reused. About 200 tombstones remain, most of them post-Gold Rush.
Open: Daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. November 1 to April 30 9-4; May 1 to October 31 9-4:30.
Admission: Adult $5, Students and Senior Citizens $3

The Misión San Francisco De Asis was the sixth of the mission parishes founded by Spain in its attempt to colonize California. On June 29, 1776, five days before the Declaration of Independence was autographed a continent away, Father Francisco Palou performed the first mass at a makeshift altar, consecrating the land to the saint who founded the Franciscan Order of poor monks. When the city eventually became known as San Francisco, the Mission came to be called Mission Dolores, because it had been established near a small stream named for Our Lady of Sorrows.

Mission Dolores is the oldest intact building in San Francisco. Buried beneath its floor are several of San Francisco’s founding fathers, including Lt. Jose Joaquin Moraga, leader of the June 1776 expedition, and William Leisdesdorff, a pioneer who became America’s first African-America millionaire.

The mission fathers’ goal was to convert the native Miwok and Ohlone peoples. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Mission Dolores had one of the highest death rates of Spain’s 21 missions in California. Thousands of Indians of bay tribes are buried in the vicinity. Nearly all of them died of European diseases, or overwork, or of the destruction of their culture.” Bret Harte’s California reports that the first interment in the mission graveyard took place as early as 1776.

Many of these First Californians were buried under wooden markers, which have not survived the years. They are commemorated by a diminutive statue of Kateri Tekawitha, Our Lady of the Mohawks, which is dedicated “In prayerful memory of our faithful Indians.” Kateri is the first Native American who was beatified, the first step toward becoming a saint.

History lies all around in this pretty little graveyard. Buried here are Don Luis Antonio Arguello, first governor of Alta California under the Mexican government before the U.S. took control of the area in 1846; Don Francisco de Haro, the first Alcalde (mayor) of San Francisco; three victims of the Vigilance Committee: Charles Cora, James P. Casey, and James “Yankee” Sullivan; as well as the namesakes of the neighboring streets: Noe, Sanchez, Guerrero, and Bernal.

Roses, ranging from blush pink to frothy yellow, cluster around the statue of Father Junipero Serra sculpted. Father Serra founded nine of the California missions, but not this one. He is buried at the mission in Carmel. Father Palou, who preached here, is remembered with a plaque of the Mission’s wall: “Zealous missionary; able administrator; successful pioneer; chosen companion of Junípero Serra. First historian of California.” He is buried in Mexico City.

The cemetery has seen several major changes over the years. A photograph in the Mission’s museum shows the cemetery stuffed with graves, most of which are gone now. The city closed the cemetery to new burials in the 1890s; many families moved their loved ones to other Catholic cemeteries in the area.

At one point, the cemetery had a large duplicate of the Grotto of Lourdes. It features in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, when Kim Novak visits the (fictional) grave of Carlotta Valdez. You can glimpse it in the 1958 movie trailer.

Stephen Marcus Landscape Company oversaw the last overhaul of the Mission graveyard in 1994. They summed up their aim in rehabilitating the cemetery-garden: ”to retain its eloquence of the past while adding new plantings that would provide beauty and seasonal interest, be drought tolerant and low maintenance, and incorporate as many native species (especially those used by the Indians) as possible.” Currently, a large tule reed house shows how the local natives lived.

A self-guided tour of the old Mission, the post-1906 Basilica, the little museum, and the cemetery is available from the gift shop. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children.
Docent tours are available by reservation for groups of ten or more. A deposit is required. Contact the curator at (415) 621-8203.

Useful Links:

Official Mission Dolores website

Encyclopedia of San Francisco entry on the Mission

Archeology at the California Missions

Historical articles about the Mission graveyard

Shrine of Kateri Tekawitha

GPS information from

Books I’ve reviewed that reference Mission Dolores Cemetery:

Permanent Californians

American Resting Place


One of Detroit’s oldest surviving graveyards

Detroit's  Mount  Elliott  Cemetery   (MI)  (Images  of  America)Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery (MI) by Cecile Wendt Jensen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am glad there is a guide to this old and historic place. Unfortunately for my taste, this book leans more toward genealogy and listing the complete names of strangers who left little mark in history than toward images of the beauties and wonders to be found at this graveyard. That’s good if your family traces itself back to Old Detroit, but not so good when it comes to giving a traveler a reason to go out of her way.

Of all the cemeteries of Detroit, I will rank this one last in terms of need to visit, based on this book. Which, I admit, is a shame. In general, I prefer to visit Catholic cemeteries over Protestant ones, based on my preference for the more ornate mortuary statuary often found there. Such things may exist in Mount Elliott (there are hints in some of the photos), but the bulk of the monuments illustrated here are less than compelling.

All that said, the author provides some fascinating information on the symbolism on military and Fireman’s Fund grave monuments. I wish she’d focused more on those elements, about which she is impressively knowledgeable.

The book is available on Amazon: Detroit’s Mount Elliott Cemetery (MI) (Images of America)

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